Minimizing Your Digital Footprint

Dec 6, 2023

Your personal data is extremely valuable—and may be too readily available. Discover how to protect and manage your online assets.

Prashanth Challa, Head of Wealth Management Cybersecurity, Morgan Stanley
Deanna Cascella, Wealth and Estate Planning Strategist, Morgan Stanley

Key Takeaways

  • Having a large online presence can leave a trail of data, making up your digital footprint.
  • Your digital footprint can potentially expose you, your business and even those around you to cybercrime.
  • Enhancing your privacy settings for the platforms you use can help minimize the amount of data you’re sharing. 

Most people would be hard-pressed to remember the last time their smartphone wasn’t by their side. And for good reason: Smart devices play a key role in maximizing productivity.


But being in frequent use means that your devices are very much privy to almost all of your private information. As you use and share information through the platforms, websites and applications that help you work, socialize, travel, eat and shop, your online activity leaves a trail of data behind you. These digital footprints can expose you, your business and even those around you to cybercrime.


Finding the right balance between security and convenience is different for everyone, and it’s worthwhile to consider what that looks like for you. These steps can help you get the most from your personal technology while decreasing the size of your digital footprint.

To get an idea of what your digital footprint looks like, start with a quick online search of your name. What comes up?

What does my digital footprint look like?

Your geolocation is a big part of your footprint, trackable with the IP addresses attached to each of your devices. Similarly, the cookies embedded on the websites you browse capture your visits and activity. This data tracking makes it possible to easily find restaurants nearby or shop online without reentering your payment details. But with that ease comes trade-offs for your privacy.


To get an idea of what your digital footprint looks like, start with a quick online search of your name. What comes up?


From there, take a closer inventory of your social media presence. What kind of privacy settings are in place for the platforms you use? Who can see your profile or posts?


Next, conduct a day-long digital audit. Keep track of the internet-connected devices you use, including household “smart” devices and appliances. Scan your inbox to take stock of your different online accounts. And don’t forget about your phone. What apps do you have and how are they configured in your settings? Do they have access to your photos, contacts or location?


What data about myself am I comfortable sharing?

If you find that your digital exposure is more than you want or expected, here are some things you can do to rein in your data-sharing:


  • Adjust the privacy settings for your social media accounts to limit sharing to friends and family. You can toggle your settings to be more or less restrictive depending on your preferences.
  • Reduce your applications to those you use and only give applications permission to access the data they need to function. For instance, a ride-share app needs access to your location, but a diet and exercise app may not. Configure your settings to turn off location-sharing when not using apps that require it to function.  


  • Disable cookies and/or clear your cookie cache or browser history regularly. This will reduce the amount of data collected about you. You can also use the private browsing features built into all modern web browsers, which automatically clear all browsing data from your device.


  • Consider using a private search engine. Popular search engines are so prevalent that it’s easy to forget there are alternatives. Private search engines are designed to enhance users’ anonymity by both refusing to store data from the user, and in some cases, by even preventing sites in the search results from collecting user data.


  • Use a virtual private network (VPN). A VPN will encrypt your internet connection, prevent it from being intercepted or tampered with, and make it much more difficult for advertisers to track your activities by obscuring your identifying characteristics.


In general, your data is one of your most valuable assets. Before sharing it with a company, do your research and read the fine print of their privacy policies. Be sure you’re comfortable with their reputation and how they plan to use, store and share what you disclose to them.

In general, your data is one of the most valuable things you have to offer.

Accounting for your digital assets

Estate plans aren’t only for physical or financial assets. It can be helpful to think of your different accounts and digital files as assets and make sure they’re included in your planning documents. Your attorney can help you plan or designate someone to govern your music, accounts or other digital items after your death. Taking the time to account for assets in your estate plan can help you preserve your family’s privacy for generations, especially as regulations around digital privacy and assets evolve.


However, it’s important to note that even your estate plan can become part of  your digital footprint.


Sensitive documents like estate plans can enter the public sphere during the probate process. If an individual dies owning probate assets, the nominated executor must file the decedent’s original will in probate court to begin the probate proceeding. In most jurisdictions, the will is scanned into a court’s searchable public file along with a certified death certificate and probate petition. Documents containing information about family members, beneficiaries, assets or even accounting information can be added to the court’s file, with public access to these files varying by jurisdiction.  


One way to shield this information from the public (or eliminate the probate process) is to transfer your assets to a Revocable Living Trust during your lifetime. Doing so can not only give you, your family and your beneficiaries more privacy, but also ease the administrative burden of probate.

Need help managing your digital footprint?

As digital consumption continues to grow, it has never been more important to take stock of your approach to privacy and the management of your digital assets.


If you’re looking to take extra measures to prioritize your privacy or if you could use some guidance, your Morgan Stanley Financial Advisor can connect you with a cybersecurity provider through our Lifestyle Advisory Platform. These specialists can work with you to customize a strategy that works for you and your family as your needs change.


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